Yanukovych Chooses Russia over EU for Ukraine

So how are we to interpret the decision by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, to turn his back on an Association Agreement with the European Union?

The underdevelopment of Ukraine’s economy will now be accelerated, as the country becomes even more isolated from that of the world; its population will become significantly poorer. The opposition will become more implacable, more radical, and more intransigent, and its popular support will grow. The polarization within Ukraine between Europhiles and Russophiles will intensify and major civil disturbances are now quite possible, especially in the run-up to the 2015 presidential elections, which Yanukovych cannot possibly win fairly, freely, or even quasi-fairly and freely.

As Ukraine descends into poverty, ungovernability, and instability, what could Yanukovych have possibly been thinking?

Remember that Yanukovych acts on the basis of two simple principles:

  • The absolute imperative of power. Schooled in the Leninist understandings of politics as a battle between dominants and subordinates (“Kto kogo,” or “Who whom,” as Lenin put it), Yanukovych believes that loss of power spells capitulation. But, having mismanaged Ukraine for three years, he must also fear that, if he loses power, his successor will imprison him, just as his regime did to the head of the previous government. Finally, a product of Donetsk economics, Yanukovych believes that wealth can be acquired only be means of power.
  • A deep mistrust of liberalism and a concomitant preference for authoritarianism. Both features flow from his Leninist-Donetsk-style understanding of power and are exacerbated by his inexperience in international relations and apparent distrust of more worldly political figures, especially when they’re women (witness his treatment of political opponent and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko).

Seen in this light, Yanukovych’s decision to abort the EU agreement makes perfect sense—for him, that is.

Integrating with Europe would mean that he would have to try to meet Western electoral standards and get reelected cleanly in 2015—which would never work—or make himself attractive enough to Europhile voters to get their votes—which would mean talking and acting like a liberal. Rejecting the Association Agreement makes Yanukovych unelectable on any legitimate basis, but leaves the door open to fraud and coercion, which appeals to his authoritarian impulse. Integrating with Europe would also mean living up to Western judicial standards and releasing Tymoshenko from prison. That was a deal-breaker both because rule of law is anathema to him and because it would have meant losing face by caving in to a woman.

And what of Ukraine’s seemingly inevitable decay? Given the principles that underlie Yanukovych’s behavior, the country’s immiseration, underdevelopment, and instability are actually good things for him. After all, the weaker and more isolated the country is from the Western world’s inconvenient standards, the easier it is to control politically and exploit economically. Now that Yanukovych has donned Leonid Brezhnev’s mantle and transformed Ukraine into a stagnant version of the late USSR, expect Ukraine’s downward slide, if undeterred, to be purposefully promoted by the regime.

The only silver lining in this cloud is that these same principles will also militate against Yanukovych’s joining Vladimir Putin’s neo-imperialist pet project, the Customs Union made up of such, er, thriving market economies as Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. Joining the CU would bring Yanukovych and his corrupt operations within the Kremlin’s sphere of influence and undermine his power and wealth.

Fortunately, all is not lost. Like all tin-pot authoritarians, Yanukovych thought he could pull a fast one on the people. He was wrong. On Sunday, November 24th, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets in protest against the regime’s anti-European moves. The opposition called for the government’s resignation and Yanukovych’s impeachment. They may or may not succeed this time, but one thing is clear, and Yanukovych must know it. Sooner or later, his regime will come crashing down. The only question is: will the collapse be peaceful or not? 

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